When people think of Connemara in County Galway, they most often imagine the wildly beautiful, windswept landscape and rugged Atlantic coastline it encompasses. It’s on this land that wild horses have existed for many centuries. But more than just a romantic tale, this is where Ireland’s indigenous Connemara ponies are derived. For those hoping to learn more about this distinguished breed, guests staying at Ashford Castle will have the opportunity to ride a Connemara pony though the sprawling forests of the estate.
The story of how Connemara Ponies became such a prestigious breed is one that derives from folklore. While it’s believed ponies were brought to Ireland by Celtic warriors some 2,500 years ago, legend also says the horses of the sinking Spanish Armada swam to shore in the 16th-century, going on to breed with the wild ponies on land. Surviving within Connemara’s mountains and along the Atlantic coastline, these ponies soon adapted to the harsh terrain.
In later years, families would take in these wild horses, but it was in 1923 that The Connemara Breeders Association was founded in Galway, with the aim of improving the breed for equestrian sport. With the Connemara ponies’ natural qualities of athleticism, versatility and good temperament, the association was successful in breeding a pony that could excel in a number of equestrian sports, from show jumping to dressage.
While staying at Ashford Castle, guests have the opportunity to experience the Connemara ponies’ athleticism and good temperament for themselves. Cong is a village that’s within easy walking distance of Ashford Castle, and it’s here that the Ashford Equestrian Centre is situated.
Puffin is one of the equestrian centre’s Connemara ponies; born on Caherduff farm in Cong, Puffin is now eight years old, with a penchant for jumping and cantering in the woods. “Puffin loves a good scratch under his jaw if anyone is walking past his stable,” Mary O’Loughlin of Ashford Outdoors tells us, “Kids with riding experience love to have lessons on him, and he rules the roost when out in the field, even with the bigger Irish draughts. Best of all, he is sure-footed and a great all-rounder to ride in the woods.”
From complete beginners and families with small children to experienced riders who want the freedom to canter along the lakeshore, the stables offer rides to suit everyone. Riders can set out along trails of the 3,000-acre forest around Ashford Estate, along the shores of Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, and with views of the distant Connemara mountains.
Hour-long trail rides to cater for all riding abilities, with safety equipment supplied and tuition in the arena before setting out along the trails, if necessary. A two-hour ride takes riders even further on their exploration, and for the more experienced riders, there are the more challenging privately guided hacks. Private riding lessons can be arranged to take place at the stables, too.
For a more relaxed experience, carriage rides can be taken around the Ashford Estate, enabling passengers to take in the scenery of the lake, woods and castle. But whatever the experience a guest chooses to have, meeting the Connemara ponies of Ashford Estate is sure to be a highlight of their stay.
All Ashford Estate Images © Red Carnation Hotels. Image of the black Connemara Pony, Puffin © Ashford Equestrian Centre.